The new Arab revolt

Life inside Mubarak’s torture chambers, a letter from Tunisia, why the neoconservatives are still wr

In this week's New Statesman, we publish a special spread on revolt in the Arab world, featuring Tariq Ramadan, Lana Asfour, Mehdi Hasan and Maajid Nawaz.

Maajid Nawaz spent four years in prison in Egypt between 2002 and 2006 for his role as leader of the pan-Islamist Hizb ut-Tahrir. In this week's New Statesman, Nawaz discusses life in one of Mubarak's torture centres.

I was "Number 42" in the dungeons of Hosni Mubarak's torture facilities. Before me were 41 poor souls, taken one by one and electrocuted. Behind me were hundreds more. Wives were stripped and tortured in front of their husbands, children electrocuted in front of their parents. Few returned from the darkness of Cairo's el-Gihaz and Lazoughly cells . . .

Mubarak's Egypt perfected the art of torture without leaving a mark. His was a regime that terrorised an entire population into silence. His was a regime that basked in the lavish attention of western leaders while Egyptian Islamists, communists and democrats all lived in fear. Now it's game over for him and his regime.

The Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan comments on a time of momentous change in the Arab world and asks who will fill the power vacuum being created in the Middle East.

"A barrier has fallen," writes Ramadan. "Nothing will be the same again. It is quite likely that other countries will follow the lead of Egypt, given its central and symbolic significance."

Presidents and kings are feeling the pressure of this historical turning point. The unrest has reached Algeria, Yemen and Mauritania. One should also look at Jordan, Syria and even Saudi Arabia. The rulers of all these countries know that if the Egyptian is collapsing, they run the risk of the same destiny.

Egypt could well prove the tipping point for reform and democracy in the Arab world, according to Ramadan.

This state of instability is worrying and at the same time very promising. The Arab world is awakening with dignity and hope. The changes spell hope for true democrats, and trouble for those who would sacrifice democratic principle to their economic and geostrategic calculations.

What will fill the power vacuum is not solely the decision of the populace in the Arab world, however.

Neither the United States nor Europe, not to mention Israel, will easily allow the Egyptian people to make their dream of democracy and freedom come true. The strategic and geopolitical considerations are such that the reform movement will be, and is already, closely monitored by US agencies in co-ordination with the Egyptian army, which has played for time and assumed the crucial role of mediator.

Lana Asfour reports from the epicentre of the Arab revolt, Tunisia.

Whatever Tunisia's political landscape will look like in six months, it is clear that the hard work is just beginning. Tunisia has to address institutional corruption after years of dictatorship and learn how to exercise democracy in all areas of life.

But the novelty of freedom has still not worn off, according to Asfour.

Back on the tree-lined Habib Bourguiba Avenue [in Tunis], the mood is exuberant. People are proud of what they have achieved and delighted to be able to speak freely without threat of arrest and torture.

It has been a very civilised revolution, she argues:

What is reassuring about this revolution is that there is little desire for vengeance against those who had ties to the RCD. Tunisia, which can boast a highly educated population and equal rights for women, has conducted a very civilised revolution.

Finally, Mehdi Hasan attacks the crude use of revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt in order to justify George Bush's foreign policy in the region.

Blair and Bush were not interested in Arab freedom and democracy initially, argues Hasan.

Freedom for the Iraqis became the primary justification for the war only after weapons of mass destruction turned out to be a figment of the neoconservative imagination.

It wasn't that we were opposed to a "freedom agenda" in the Middle East but that we rejected the neocon formula that said democracy could be delivered through the barrel of a gun. We objected to the means, not the ends.

In a 2007 report, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace noted that the Bush administration had friendly relations with more than half of the 45 "non-free" countries in the world. Those included Egypt and Tunisia – the latter is now free from the grip of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and the former, at the time of writing, is on the brink of liberation from Mubarak's police. Jordan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia could be next. And the neocons, smug and sanctimonious, can't take credit for any of these events. Are we all neocons now? Of course not.

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What will Labour's new awkward squad do next?

What does the future hold for the party's once-rising-stars?

For years, Jeremy Corbyn was John McDonnell’s only friend in Parliament. Now, Corbyn is the twice-elected Labour leader, and McDonnell his shadow chancellor. The crushing leadership election victory has confirmed Corbyn-supporting MPs as the new Labour elite. It has also created a new awkward squad.   

Some MPs – including some vocal critics of Corbyn – are queuing up to get back in the shadow cabinet (one, Sarah Champion, returned during the leadership contest). Chi Onwurah, who spoke out on Corbyn’s management style, never left. But others, most notably the challenger Owen Smith, are resigning themselves to life on the back benches. 

So what is a once-rising-star MP to do? The most obvious choice is to throw yourself into the issue the Corbyn leadership doesn’t want to talk about – Brexit. The most obvious platform to do so on is a select committee. Chuka Umunna has founded Vote Leave Watch, a campaign group, and is running to replace Keith Vaz on the Home Affairs elect committee. Emma Reynolds, a former shadow Europe minister, is running alongside Hilary Benn to sit on the newly-created Brexit committee. 

Then there is the written word - so long as what you write is controversial enough. Rachel Reeves caused a stir when she described control on freedom of movement as “a red line” in Brexit negotiations. Keir Starmer is still planning to publish his long-scheduled immigration report. Alison McGovern embarked on a similar tour of the country

Other MPs have thrown themselves into campaigns, most notably refugee rights. Stella Creasy is working with Alf Dubs on his amendment to protect child refugees. Yvette Cooper chairs Labour's refugee taskforce.

The debate about whether Labour MPs should split altogether is ongoing, but the warnings of history aside, some Corbyn critics believe this is exactly what the leadership would like them to do. Richard Angell, deputy director of Progress, a centrist group, said: “Parts of the Labour project get very frustrated that good people Labour activists are staying in the party.”

One reason to stay in Labour is the promise of a return of shadow cabinet elections, a decision currently languishing with the National Executive Committee. 

But anti-Corbyn MPs may still yet find their ability to influence policies blocked. Even if the decision goes ahead, the Corbyn leadership is understood to be planning a root and branch reform of party institutions, to be announced in the late autumn. If it is consistent with his previous rhetoric, it will hand more power to the pro-Corbyn grassroots members. The members of Labour's new awkward squad have seized on elections as a way to legitimise their voices. But with Corbyn in charge, they might get more democracy than they bargained for.